by Antonina Zhelyazkova 

III. The Perception of the “other” Albanian or the three Albanian identities

It is very difficult for the external observer to define what is common for and what is specific to the three Albanian communities. 

Still more interesting is the fact that when starting this theme the Albanians themselves firmly rejected the idea that there were any differences among them. The first reaction of the Kosovars, the Macedonian Albanians and the Albanians from Albania was identical: “We are of the same flesh and blood”, “There are no differences - we are brothers, aren’t we?”, “We are one and the same ethnos, though separated”, “Our customs and traditions – they all are the same”. 

A patient anthropological approach is needed as well as profound pre-historical and ethnographic knowledge, in order to understand the surprise of each one of the Albanian communities when the Kosovo events made it possible for them to get closer to each other. This is the fact that they differ substantially; still more shocking for the Albanians was the finding that they did not like each other contrary to their inherent attitudes and initial expectations. Their knowledge about each other was, to a great extent, mythological and imaginary. 

One should not create the wrong impression that they did not communicate and did not know each other prior to the Kosovo crisis. These, however, were incidental contacts, they referred to a very close circle of people and until the arrival of the refugees the social instinct had been unprepared to draw its concrete conclusions. Now, they have already been drawn.

Albanians from Albania about themselves
During Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania, the cultural, ethnographic, linguistic and economic differences between the North and the South were muted and suppressed with a policy of repression. According to the respondents “during the communist time everything was mixed up, the communists made a Russian salad, it had become difficult to speak about Ghegs and Tosks as something different.”

Nevertheless, there exist stable stereotypes, which characterize the two basic ethnographic groups. What is more interesting in this case is that these ethnographic differences, “dialectal – we understand each other but you always know that you are speaking to a southerner or a northerner”, “the literary language  /the Tosk/ erased these differences”, “in the south they sing without instrumental accompaniment while in the north they always sing to the accompany of chifteli”, “in the north people are taller, in the south they are shorter, i.e. a Mediterranean type”, etc., have turned into fundamental social differences. According to respondents the Tosks from Southern Albania are better educated and highly cultured. They migrated to the lowlands and now they live in compact settlements maintaining close relations with the emigrants in Italy. This makes them more open to the world. 

Northern Albania is inhabited by the Ghegs, but another ethnographic group called maltso or maltsori-s inhabits the northernmost highlands. They live in small, scattered mountainous villages or in separate and hamlets isolated in terms of their kinship ties. The population is identified as more conservative, backward and reticent. The conclusion of some respondents, made to facilitate our understanding of the differences, is a typical social evaluation: “The Tosks from the South are the intellectuals, the real politicians and creators, while the Ghegs have always been military men, the class of soldiers and the police and they have remained the same. It had always been like this – both under the Ottomans and under Enver Hoxha”.

The relations between the two basic groups of Ghegs and Tosks represent a constant rivalry for superiority, which very often oversteps the laws in force. There is a rich folklore as well, mainly jokes, that emphasizes the advantages and the shortcomings of the ones or the others depending on the narrators and their identity. Quite interesting is the argument about the Kanun of Leka Dukagjin*. One of the strongest trumps of the northerners is that the Kanun was compiled in the North, to which the more educated southerners reply that both the Kanun and the Testament of George Castriota Scanderbeg were valid in the past and are valid at present too and they have been observed by all Albanians, both in the South and in the North. 

This rivalry has reached the most acute and destructive forms in political antagonism. Southerners respondents told us how during the time of Sali Berisha they were ousted from key state positions and then Tirana was flooded by highlanders from the North. They said that the entire state machine was changed, following the clan principle first, and then – the regional one. 

In 1997, after the collapse of the pyramid schemes the South rose against Berisha’s government and Southern Albania was entirely cut from governmental control. In order to get the situation under control there were appeals to the highlanders from the North to support the government and to advance armed and well equipped on the town of Vlorë. Albania was faced with the real danger of civil war, which would have increased not only the tension between the North and the South but could have split the country. 

The assertion that the change of the political leaders, though through elections, is actually a victory of either the South or the North, and that this leads to the corresponding change of some fis members with other fis members, is not a subject of discussion for the respondents. People in Albania are quite aware of the fact that in this way they move in a vicious circle and they hope that this circle could be broken off if Sali Berisha (the North) and Fatos Nano (the South) were removed from  political life. Since the Albanians are outstanding optimists, they summarize: ”When these two guys go away and leave the government in the hands of the young people, then everything will be all right and we shall enter the EU”. This unflagging optimism in everything is probably due to the youth of the Albanian nation (the average age is 26).

Sometimes there are quite negative assessments about the maltso from the remote North, expressed by some Ghegs even from North Albania: ”If they ask us, let the Serbs take the northernmost parts of Albania, where the maltso live. They are not like us, they are savage and uncultured.”

At present one of the great Albanian problems /as seen by an external observer/ is the presence of a great amount of firearms among the population. According to unofficial data only 10-12 % of the weapons that were plundered from the barracks in 1997 have been given back. The Albanian authorities assume that arms among the population amount to about 600 000 units. Even the enticing proposals for buying them up at their double and triple price compared to the price on the black market, led nowhere. “No Albanian would sell his weapon”, the respondents said, “of course, when you have plenty you could sell some of them for the family welfare, but there should always be enough in the family”. Most Albanian families possess one or several sub-machine-guns and the smaller weapons and ammunitions are not counted at all. Arms possession is in the Albanian tradition. Men respondents speak about the past with pleasure, when the gun was placed in a prominent position above the fireplace and symbolized the independence of the owner. Now, weapons are kept in a secret place. They speak freely about weapons, they laugh, they feel proud and declare that they would not part with them: “I cannot imagine my family life without the pistol under my pillow”, a respondent said.

Albanians are indifferent to religions and they declare their atheism without any embarrassment. Religion ranks far behind in their value system. Thus intermarriages between Orthodox and Muslims, Catholics and Muslims, etc. do not cause any internal problems. Some of the children are baptized, others are circumcised, i.e. they observe the ritual systems of the three religions without putting any religious feeling in it. More interesting is the role of bektashism** in the Albanians’ value system. They call the  Bektashi(s) order “the fourth religion in Albania”. Islam spread in Albania during the Ottoman rule namely through the order of Hadji Bektash, but this “fourth Albanian religion” had no religious meaning for the Albanians. There is not a single Albanian, particularly from among the middle and young generation who knows the specific characteristics and the philosophy of this order, but it is considered a great advantage to be a bektashi – this means that you belong to some spiritual and intellectual elité. All Muslim-southerners assertain that their families are bektashi(s). The respondents-Tosks rejected the possibility that there were bektashi(s) in the North but the northerners claimed the reverse. In Kosovo and Macedonia where Albanians come from Northern Albania there is also a bektashi order and the corresponding religious institutions, i.e. tekkes (in Ðakovica and in Tetovo) but they are not popular among the local population. Actually, Tirana is the headquartes of all bektashi(s) orders in the Balkans.

Albanian pragmatism outweighs all forms of nationalism. It was surprising to hear from a great number of respondents answering the question about their geopolitical attitudes, that they did not show keen interest in Albania’s sovereignty. All Albanians strive to be under the protection of some strong and rich country or union, or else - to leave Albania and emigrate to the West.

During a field work in 1993, when the land had just been distributed***, the new owners’ dream was for rich farmers to come from the USA, to buy their land and leave them cultivate it, collecting all profits and giving them what was needed for their survival. This was a naiveté, which we witnessed six years ago in all Albanian villages. 

Now the most frequently given answer was that the good prospects for Albania were for her to become an Italian district. A countless number of historical memories and concrete facts were brought to the fore, which proved the closeness of Albania and Italy: “We are one and the same with Italy, sooner or later we must unite.” When we reminded them of the Second World War and the occupation, the Albanians responded,  “Look at the center of Tirana, they made a town out of a village during the occupation. They never kept aside from us, as the Germans did. They treated us as equals. When the Wehrmacht soldiers came and began persecuting the Italians, we gave them shelter in our homes.” You can rarely find a family which has no memories of having harboured Italian soldiers. 

Getting into closer relations with Italy is the most promising thing, which places relations with the EU and the USA far behind in Albanians’ dreams. “America, of course, is a super power and this is a good thing and we should take this into consideration, but neighbors are more important. We, Albanians, have always respected the great states and nations – the Soviet Union, China, and now the USA.  However, while waiting for the ship with flour to arrive from America, people will have already died, that is why we look to our neighbors, especially to Italy and Greece. The USA are far away, they are just like a mirage!”

Albanians have an amazingly high opinion of Bulgaria and, in a sense, they feel a piety towards the Bulgarians. During the 50s and the 60s the best Bulgarian specialists - agronomists, selectionists of grain and tobacco, were sent on a mission to Albania for a few months, some of them for years and they introduced high quality agriculture among the Albanians. Respondents invited our team to visit a wonderful tangerine garden where we rejoiced like children to see a culture, which does not grow in Bulgaria. The hosts-respondents, aged 30-32 said, “We know from our fathers, and they know from their fathers that we wouldn’t have had this wealth from our land if the Bulgarians hadn’t taught us. Each of us has taken a vow to pass on to his sons and they to their sons, this high agricultural culture that you have brought us. You have taught us how to grow tangerines as well. You’ve taught us everything.” 

In the bigger towns there are Albanian-Bulgarian friendship societies, established by Albanians who graduated from Bulgarian higher institutions during the 50s, i.e. mainly agronomy, navigation, etc. In the town of Duras alone there is a society with about 40 members. They are many more in Tirana. Bulgaria’s decision not to accept refugees from Kosovo during the war in Yugoslavia did not meet with a negative response in Albania. According to respondents the Kosovar Albanians themselves did not want to be directed to Bulgaria. Their close aim was Turkey where they had relatives and they relied on better conditions. “We were more offended when the Bulgarians protested against the war, when NATO killed the Serbs, but they did not object to Albanians being killed. There were no voices in defense of the Kosovars. However, you have done a lot for us and we have no right to judge you”. 

Since the 50s and the 60s, when there was obviously a great mobility of students and specialists between the two countries, wonderful memories have accumulated, and mixed marriages have been contracted which have gone through the severe trials of the repressive Albanian machine. The good feelings are lasting and the respondents fear that the Mafia, as well as the weapon and drug traffickers, discredit the Albanians with the Bulgarians.

As a whole, the Albanians in Albania feel free and optimistic. For all of them the changes that occurred after the fall of the communist regime are positive. They enjoy the possibility to speak freely, to travel, and to work abroad. Respondents said that regardless of the deep economic crisis and chaos, the living standard had risen for many of them and for some it had leapt up. Quite impressive is the large scale and chaotic construction. Albanians are trying to invest all illegally acquired funds in constructions – they build everywhere, hastily and uneconomically, huge qualities of concrete are cast, thus devastating the wonderful nature. Buildings have already bitten into the wonderful 25 km long beach strip along the Adriatic shore, the wide belt with tropic verdure was swept away long ago for building private hotels and villas. Everyone in Albania knows that it is the local, as well as the Kosovar weapon and drugs traffickers, who erect buildings in Duras and along the seacoast. Respondents think that sooner or later the Duras coast will turn into a sort of Las Vegas where one could profit by gambling and prostitution and where the Albanian Mafia will meet. When the infrastructure improves, Mafia structures from other countries will probably join as well.

* Albanian common law, the Albanian code of moral, social and life rules, compiled by a representative of the big Dukagjin clan, in force since the Fifteenth Century. 
** A Sufi mystic order related to the semi-legendary personality of Hadji Bektash (?-1337), who had been elected patron of the janissary corps. Bektashism consists of different elements adopted by Paganism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This sect has played a very important role for the spread of Islam among the Christians in Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.
*** In Albania the arable land belonged to one or two dozens of local families-owners and after Enver Hoxha came to power it was nationalized. This made it possible to avoid the process of “restitution” in Albania but to distribute the land equally among the families in each settlement.